Lake Place Park gets a cleanup

Penny Perry was taking walks in the neighborhood of Lake Place Park before there was a Lake Place Park. "I choose to be in this neighborhood," said Perry, who has owned Perry Framing for 36 years in old downtown. "As homogenous as Duluth is, this...

Lake Place Park
Volunteers clean up branches and brush from Lake Place Park in downtown Duluth on Saturday morning. This is the second weekend in a row that volunteers helped city workers clear overgrown parts of the park that is frequented by drug users. Business owners say the problem has become worse since synthetic marijuana began being sold downtown. (Clint Austin /

Penny Perry was taking walks in the neighborhood of Lake Place Park before there was a Lake Place Park.

"I choose to be in this neighborhood," said Perry, who has owned Perry Framing for 36 years in old downtown. "As homogenous as Duluth is, this is the most diverse area, I think. That's what I love about it, and frankly that's what all the people that are in small businesses in this area love."

She walks with her dogs through Lake Place Park, which is directly behind her business, as many as four times a day and as late as after 10 at night.

"I'm very comfortable with a lot of the activity in the park," she said. "I know tons of regulars that are in the park all the time. So I'm not fearful. It's not that I don't feel safe."

But Perry started noticing something new last spring, and she finds it deeply disturbing. Young people she sees in the morning sitting on the same bench in the evening, staring vacantly. Vomit on sidewalks and bridges. Youths who appear emaciated and have "horribly bloodshot eyes." Discarded mattresses and clothing.


Perry ties the change to the use of synthetic marijuana. Lake Place Park is just around the corner from Last Place on Earth, the only place in the region that still sells fake pot.

"I really started noticing it in the spring," she said. "I went to college -- I know the smell of marijuana when I smell it. And I was walking in the park and I thought, wow, this is impressive. People are just smoking right out in public."

Other people are noticing, said Kristi Stokes, president of the Greater Downtown Business Council. "We have seen an increase in quality-of-life issues in the park," she said. "It's a little bit more of a hidden park. So we want to make sure that when someone walks through there they feel that it's a safer area."

So for the past two Saturdays, the council and the city have spearheaded a volunteer effort to clean up Lake Place Park, which overlooks Lake Superior in old downtown and connects to the Lakewalk.

On Saturday, a half-dozen volunteers joined a Clean and Safe team worker from the Greater Downtown Business Council and Bob Dunsmore of the city parks department, removing garbage and overgrowth from the east side of the park and feeding the brush through a wood chipper.

An area they denuded of brush and shrubs within sight of the Sheraton Hotel had been a frequent hangout, said Dunsmore, who has been responsible for the area for 17 years.

"They had quite a party here last night," Dunsmore said. "When I came here this morning there was garbage all over the place."

Dunsmore is responsible for some of the city's showpieces, including Canal Park, the Lakewalk and Lake Place Park. Like Perry, he has noticed a difference during the past year.


"This summer's really been interesting," he said. "I'm a little intimidated by some of these people. I've never felt intimidated before. I shouldn't have to feel intimidated."

Gina Esterbrooks of Downtown Computers has been part of the volunteer crew each of the past two weeks. She sees synthetic marijuana as a source of the change.

"I think what happened was certain places in the state or other places in the city ... stopped selling the synthetic marijuana," she said. "So you have more activity, more business traffic for the Last Place."

Lake Place Park, she said, is "a convenient, very beautiful location for people to hang out and use their product."

Simply thinning out plants can make the area safer, said Tom Kasper, a supervisor with the city's Street and Park Maintenance Department.

"Really it's about improving sight lines so you can improve visibility so you improve both the perception of safety and also safety itself," Kasper said. "It's all about just trying to allow people that are using that park, which is a beautiful park, the feeling that they are safe."

Lt. Eric Rish, east area commander for the Duluth police, agrees that environmental changes can improve safety.

"By trimming away low branches or raising planting beds and keeping them clean, it becomes less likely for people to do unsavory things," Rish said.


The cleared-out brush will help police find people, Dunsmore said, but it won't change the fake pot smokers' behavior. They smoke openly and ignore requests to clean up after themselves and show no consideration for other park users, he said.

"It really becomes the perception of the park," Dunsmore said.

That perception is important to Esterbrooks, a member of the Greater Downtown Council board.

"People come from other countries, other cities across the nation looking at how the city built the whole boardwalk," Esterbrooks said. "And I think it's important to keep it clean and safe and happy."

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